At a moment like this, younger Californians should read Mona Simpson.
The novelist, a UCLA English professor, may be best known as Steve Jobs’ biological sister; she told the world that the Apple chief’s final words were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” But she first made her reputation with the novel Anywhere But Here, first published in 1986 but still awfully current.
It’s a classic California tale – and a horror story about being young and being the responsibility of someone who is herself irresponsible.
In the novel, a mother, Adele August, relocates with her young daughter, Ann, from Wisconsin to L.A. The mother has dreams of wealth for herself, and Hollywood ambitions for her daughter. But Adele is desperate and delusional. She breaks virtually every promise she makes to her daughter. And so the roles reverse. Adele’s age may make her a grown-up, but she is pure adolescent. Her daughter, even as a child, must be the adult.
I’ve long carried a torch for the daughter, and not just because Natalie Portman played her (alongside Susan Sarandon) in the 1999 movie version. Ann’s exasperation with her mother’s broken promises – and her mother’s inability to acknowledge her own irresponsibility – expresses perfectly the fix that younger Californians find themselves in.
Our elders in California tell us this state is a global leader in higher education, but kids today can’t find space at public universities, and those who do are running up huge debts. We are told California is deeply committed to public education, but our elders fund those schools as if this were a poor Southern state. Our politicians trumpet recent statistics showing California leading the nation in job creation, but our unemployment rate remains well above the national average.
In the face of broken promises, the generations in California have reversed roles: Younger people behave more like grown-ups. Younger generations (I’m a Gen Xer) are driving and smoking less, and committing fewer crimes than our elders did. Our elders got more stable retirement benefits and the big run-up in their real estate values, and protected themselves from higher property taxes. We got bigger college debts and housing debts and tax bills, and are far more likely to be on budgets.
Our leadership reflects this upside-down reality. Elected officials are supposed to be creative and future-oriented, but ours are deeply conservative – in the classic sense of preserving yesterday’s gains for yesterday’s youth. Our governor, who just got reelected without bothering to offer an agenda for his next term, is 76, while our U.S. senators are 81 and 73. Even our rock stars skew older, certainly much older than their critics, slaving away on websites. At protests around the state, you’ll often find the protestors are older than the cops keeping watch.
Is this why California sometimes feels so stuck? While those who are supposed to offer new ideas are too wedded to the past, those charged with imposing new limits are young and ambitious. Voters just confirmed Goodwin Liu, 44, and Tino Cuéllar, 42, to the California Supreme Court. Is this inversion the reason we are so restrained, adopting regulations for almost everything, from grocery bags and watering plants to the hours of high school football practice?
The most frustrating part of this moment is that there’s no escaping it. In Anywhere But Here, Ann would like to run away from her mother, but she can’t. Adele has the keys to the car, literally. After they fight, Adele offers to buy her daughter ice cream. That feels familiar, too. Our elders have accumulated such wealth that we need them – to help us buy houses or fund the educations of our kids (their grandkids).
Adele never really explains herself. Being the mother, the elder, absolves her. Gov. Brown, in a late-campaign appearance, let loose an Adele-like rant after a younger reporter asked why he hadn’t offered a fourth-term agenda. “This is my 12th year” as governor, Brown said. “No one’s ever had 12 years of constant press conferences and discussions and letters and what do they call those things – state of the state speeches. Three separate inaugurations. So what don’t you know? What don’t you know that you think I could tell you now in front of all these people?”
It’s possible to fight this sort of attitude, but have you ever won an argument with an older Californian? As Ann, the daughter, says: ”Strangers almost always love my mother. And even if you hate her, can’t stand her, even if she’s ruining your life, there’s something about her, some romance, some power. She’s absolutely herself. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never get to her.”
When will California’s elders lose their hold over us? Never. “And when she dies,” says Ann of her mother, “the world will be flat, too simple, reasonable, too fair.”
Joe Mathews is California and innovation editor for Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.